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Respiratory hygiene in early years, including babies

Article discussing why we sneeze, what to do when we sneeze, and some important points to remember.
cartoon image of lungs
© BSAC & PHE

It is important that good respiratory hygiene is taught from a young age, and that key messages are built on over time. This is especially important in the approach to the winter flu season each year, as infection rates increase and can lead to time off from childcare, school and work.

  • Symptoms of colds include a headache, sore throat and fever, and sometimes a runny or blocked nose. We need to make sure young children can use tissues to catch sneezes and then throw used tissues away.
  • Colds can spread from person to person through the air, through person-to-person contact (hands) or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus can be spread by getting into the non-infected person’s nose or eyes because they touch their face with contaminated hands.
  • We can prevent common childhood infections by getting vaccinations at the right times. Vaccine schedules are a helpful resource.
  • Another way of preventing the spread of cold and flu is learning how to successfully practice good respiratory hygiene when we cough or sneeze.

Why do we sneeze?

  • Sneezing is a way in which our bodies try to get rid of any harmful microbes and dust we might inhale.
  • The harmful microbes and dust get caught on the nose hair and tickle our nose. The nose sends a message to the brain which then sends a message back to our nose, mouth, lungs and chest telling them to blow the irritation away, or sneeze.
  • In the case of colds and flu, millions of virus particles rush out, spread through the air and contaminate the surface they land on; this could be our food, surfaces or hands.
Did you know? A sneeze can travel at 100mph through the air and spread cold/flu virus over 20 feet away from the infected person.

Person sneezing Photo credit: James Gathany CDC (Public Health Image Library)

Prevent the spread of harmful microbes from coughs or sneezes by:

  • Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue and binning the used tissue at once, to avoid spreading infection to surfaces, or other people.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, covering with your upper sleeve or elbow (not your hands).
  • Washing your hands well with soap and water, or hand sanitiser if this is not available.
  • Young children and babies will need support to help wash their hands frequently and deal with blocked runny noses. Designating a respiratory hygiene spot in a pre-school class (sniffle station) can help children easily access and bin tissues.

Where there is an outbreak of infection it is important that you wash your hands more often and for at least 20 seconds every time. Follow key guidance on respiratory hygiene. Click here to see a COVID-19 guidance poster for educational settings. (You can also find this in the downloads section below.

How do you assist children if they have any symptoms, such as coughing or sneezing?

Let us know your experience in the comments below.

© BSAC & PHE
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Preventing and Managing Infections in Childcare and Pre-school

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